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NSF MCA Overview

Through the Mid-Career Advancement (MCA) program, the NSF is seeking proposals from mid-career scientists at the Associate Professor rank (or equivalent) who wish to substantively advance their research program and career trajectory. A primary objective of the MCA is to ensure that scientists and engineers remain engaged and active in cutting-edge research at a critical career stage replete with constraints on time that can impinge on research productivity, retention, and career advancement [1-4]. Thus, by (re)-investing in mid-career researchers, NSF hopes to enable a more diverse scientific workforce, including more women, persons with disabilities, and underrepresented minorities at high academic ranks {5, 6].

The MCA provides protected time and resources to enable advancements in creativity and productivity. Projects that envision new insights on existing problems or identify new but related problems previously inaccessible without new methodology or expertise from other fields are encouraged, but not required. The MCA fosters innovation by supporting synergistic and mutually beneficial partnerships [1] to catalyze convergence across different disciplines or subdisciplines. Scientists at the Associate Professor rank (or equivalent) are freer to pursue bold and innovative research ideas, but at the same time are often more constrained due to increased service and teaching responsibilities that can hamper scientific productivity [1-4, 7, 8]. MCA support is expected to help lift these constraints and reduce workload inequities.

A key component of a successful MCA will be the demonstration that the PI's current research program could substantively benefit from the protected time, mentored partnership(s), and resources provided through this special program, such that there is a substantial enhancement to the PI's research and career trajectory, enabling scientific and academic advancement not likely without this support.

II. Alignment with NSF priorities and values

i) Broadening Participation - The MCA enables a more diverse STEM workforce by facilitating research productivity and creativity from mid-career scientists and engineers. The mid-career stage is one where researchers have fewer institutional resources, increased service and teaching responsibilities, and a need for retooling. Data show that women, persons with disabilities, and under-represented minorities spend more time on service and teaching at the expense of research, creating an imbalance in workload. Such inequity can lower the likelihood of promotion to the highest academic and leadership ranks. The MCA offers a mechanism for broadening participation at all institutions, and will thus contribute to fostering a more diverse, world-class science and engineering workforce.

ii) Enables Convergence - Scientific specialization, often accompanied by unique jargon, can impose challenges to integrative and innovative research. Effective communication across disciplines takes time and dedicated effort. The MCA provides that protected time for PIs to work with a partner(s) to learn new scientific and technical skills. By doing so, the MCA advances convergence research that integrates knowledge, theories, methods, data, and approaches across fields. Thus, the MCA enables creative and transformative research.

iii) Strategic Workforce Development - The volume and variety of data and analytical tools available for scientific research continue to escalate, creating unprecedented opportunity for discovery yet also challenging scientists to keep pace. Mid-career researchers, already possessing deep disciplinary expertise and broad professional networks, are a critical node in the scientific workforce necessary to propagate new perspectives and techniques. Thus, the MCA will help build workforce capacity to fulfill federal initiatives that will be key to the scientific and economic leadership of the United States.

iv) Fosters Risk Taking - The MCA supports researchers who have demonstrated success (promoted to Associate Professor) and are at a stage where they are primed to pursue bold and innovative ideas. The MCA reflects the importance placed by the NSF on encouraging transformative ideas that a) challenge conventional wisdom, b) lead to unexpected insights that enable new techniques or methodologies, and/or c) redefine the boundaries of science.


[1] Mathews, K. R. 2014. Perspectives on midcareer faculty and advice for supporting them. Cambridge, MA: The Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education.

[2] Eagan, M.K., Jr., and J. C. Garvey. 2015. Stressing out: Connecting race, gender, and stress with faculty productivity. The Journal of Higher Education 86:923-954.

[3] O'Meara, K., C. J. Lennartz, A. Kuvaeva, A. Jaeger, and J. Misra. 2019. Department conditions and practices associated with faculty workload satisfaction and perceptions of equity. The Journal of Higher Education 90:744-772.

[4] Rissler, L. J., K. L. Hale, N. R. Joffe, and N. M. Caruso. 2020. Gender differences in grant submissions across science and engineering fields at the NSF. Bioscience 70:814-820.

[5] National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NSF/NCSES), "Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2019" (Special Report NSF 19-304). Alexandria, VA.

[6] Huang, J., A. J. Gates, R. Sinatra, and A-L. Barabasi. 2020. Historical comparison of gender inequality in scientific careers across countries and disciplines. Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences 117:4609-4616:

[7] Misra, J., J. H. Lundquist, E. Holmes, and S. Agiomavritis. 2011. The ivory ceiling of service work. Academe 97:22-26.

[8] O'Meara, K., A. Kuvaeva, G. Nyunt, C. Waugaman, and R. Jackson. 2017. Asked more often: Gender differences in faculty workload in research universities and the work interactions that shape them. American Educational Research Journal 54:1154-1186.